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Skeletons have been in the game since the beginning, when they were the first step on the Undead Power Ladder. In this edition, they’re on both the Monster Manual and the Vault.
Skeletons are the true iconic undead of the fantasy genre. Vampires and zombies get the spotlight in a lot of other media, but from Harryhausen movies to the Diablo franchise, if it’s a fantasy story about fighting monsters, it has to have skeletons in it somewhere. D&D took inspiration from the former and went on to inspire the latter, so it has plenty of skeletons as well.
D&D skeletons are likely to be among the first undead faced by a party of adventurers. Unlike their more powerful and exotic relatives, they almost never arise naturally, and their existence as undead is completely disconnected from who they might have been in life. They’re just bones animated by necrotic energy.
The Monster Vault goes all-in on the flowery gothic prose when describing them, discoursing about how even inanimate skeletons are viewed by the living as symbols of death. You might be able to read something of the person’s life in the scars of their bones, but that only serves as an even stronger reminder that they’re gone (“alas Yorick, I knew thee well…”).
Skeletons behave much like stupider golems, going by the MV’s description. They’re just smart enough to understand their master’s orders, which they follow tirelessly and to the letter. Their animating force doesn’t possess much in the way of cunning, so even if it can fight well a skeleton might still fall for relatively simple ruses, or be unable to identify obvious signs of danger.
It is much easier to animate a skeleton than to create a golem, which indicates that all that gothic prose actually has a point. If I’m allowed to speculate until the end of this paragraph, I’d say necromantic magic leans heavily on that association to give a skeleton its motion and its rudimentary mind. As a result, it is by its very nature somewhat transgressive, and the proper mindset to use it likely includes active disrespect for the boundaries between life and death, which isn’t something you need to create a construct.
While the most common use for skeletons is as minions of some necromancer bent on conquest, they can also be ordered to perform simple physical tasks. A noble who wanted to appear particularly edgy could have his carriage pulled by skeletal horses. A society who wanted to look edgy could have all sorts of “automatic” gates, bridges and dungeon traps powered by skeletal labor.
The Monster Manual mentions in passing that skeletons might arise naturally in an area heavily suffused with necrotic energy. That’s likely a rare exception, and even then it’s an event that has nothing to do with who the skeletons used to be or how they died. If a rift to Thanatos opened in a cemetery containing only good people who died happy and without any unfinished business, their bones would still rise. Such skeletons simply attack anything living they come across and stay still otherwise.
Skeletons are Medium Natural Animates with the Undead keyword. They have darkvision, immunity to disease and poison, 10 resistance to necrotic damage and vulnerable 5 to radiant damage. Their base land speed is 6. Despite being nearly mindless at Int 3, they usually fight with weapons.
All skeletons we get in both books have levels in the Heroic tier, and are apparently assumed to be human skeletons. You could easily make more powerful skeletons with higher resistances if you wanted, of course, as well as skeletons originating from creatures of different sizes (like a Large giant skeleton or a swarm of Small goblin bones).
Decrepit Skeleton (Both)
A skeleton so old it’s begun to crumble, this is a Level 1 Minion Skirmisher. It fights with a longsword in melee and a shortbow at range and has no special attacks at all and no traits aside from the common ones listed above.
They should appear in similar numbers and use similar tactics to all those fragile archer skeletons from Diablo.
The basic model is a Level 3 Soldier with 45 HP, wearing mail and wielding a sword and shield. Its longsword attacks mark for a turn, and it has a Speed of the Dead trait which gives it +2 to attack and +1d6 to damage when making opportunity attacks.
A pretty straightforward soldier-type, like it probably was in life.
Blazing Skeleton (Both)
A skeleton that is on fire. It’s Level 5 Artillery with 53 HP. It has resist fire 10 on top of its other resistances, and projects a Fiery Aura (1) which does 5 damage to enemies caught inside. It fights in melee with its blazing claws, and throws flame orbs at range. The claws do physical damage and ongoing fire damage (save ends), while the orbs do both immediate and ongoing fire damage (save ends).
Boneshard Skeleton (MM)
A shattered skeleton held together by magic, it’s a Level 5 Brute with 77 HP. It wields a scimitar in combat, which is a high-crit weapon that does a mix of physical and necrotic damage. It can attack at range by flinging its shards, also doing those same types of damage. Once when it’s bloodied, and once when it’s destroyed, this skeleton detonates a Boneshard Burst (close burst 3 vs. Reflex) that does necrotic damage.
Skeletal Legionary (MV)
A minion version of the basic armored MM skeleton. A Level 7 Minion Soldier, it uses a sword in close combat and throws javelins at range, both of which mark the target for a turn on a hit. It has no other special abilities.
These sound perfect for that undead Roman legion you never knew you wanted to use.
Skeletal Tomb Guardian (Both)
This four-armed monster isn’t a random corpse given motion, but something specifically constructed so it could be animated. It’s a Level 10 Brute with 126 HP, and wields a scimitar in each of its four hands.
Each scimitar is kinda weak on its own, but the guardian’s basic twin scimitars attack allows it to use two of them, and its Cascade of Steel attack allows it to attack with all four. Sudden Strike allows to make a Twin Scimitars attack against an adjacent enemy that shifts, as an interrupt.
All of the scimitars are high-crit weapons, so if the guardian rolls really well its damage output goes up considerably.
Sample Encounters and Final Impressions
We get two encounters in the MM:
Level 3: 1 hobgoblin warcaster, 2 hobgoblin guards, 2 skeletons.
Level 5: 1 tiefling darkblade, 2 blazing skeletons, 2 boneshard skeletons.
As we can see, any enemy group that includes a spellcaster of some sort could very well include a complement of skeleton auxiliaries. We also have enough variety in their stat blocks to have plenty of all-skeleton encounters for all your ancient crypt needs.
I like skeletons, and as I said I think the game wouldn’t feel like a proper fantasy RPG (let alone D&D) without them.